Santorum, Lugar headed for clash on Iran sanctions bill

As the Bush administration’s focus on Iran intensifies, senior Republicans on Capitol Hill are headed for a showdown on proposed sanctions against the Middle Eastern country.

In the intraparty divide over how to address Iran’s alleged attempts at a nuclear weapons program, Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) have introduced legislation, which has attracted an unusual amount of broad, bipartisan support, calling for tougher, unilateral sanctions while Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) has opposed the legislation.

Both sides have been jockeying against each other to forward their respective agendas as the current sanctions statute is set to expire in August.

It is rare for a member of leadership and a powerful chairman to be at odds on such a high-profile matter. Even though Santorum has the will of Congress behind his bill, Lugar has a potentially stronger ally: the Bush administration.

Santorum and Ros-Lehtinen’s bills seek to cut off investment funds that could be used toward Iran’s creation or acquisition of nuclear weapons. The measures would require the president to determine whether to apply sanctions against any company that invests in Iranian petroleum development within 90 days of such activity’s being disclosed, amending provisions of the Iran Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA).

But the legislation has been stalled in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee because of Lugar’s opposition to unilateral sanctions. The Santorum legislation has not moved in the 16 months since its referral to the panel in February 2005. The Ros-Lehtinen bill, meanwhile, easily passed the House this year.

Andy Fisher, a spokesman for Lugar, said that the sanctions provisions of both bills “wouldn’t be helpful while we are pursuing a multilateral track” and that Lugar has been a consistent supporter of the ILSA statute. Fisher asserted that Lugar was not holding up the bill, citing the legislation’s democracy-assistance provisions, which were attached to the emergency supplemental appropriations bill that the Senate passed last month. Yet the controversial sanctions outlined in Santorum’s measure have not moved.

On ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos” in April, Lugar said that sanctions should be put off for the time being, adding, “They will not be effective without European friends who are in on negotiations quite apart from the Chinese, the Indians and the others.”

Lugar has helped stop the movement of two bills that carry the overwhelming support of both chambers. The Santorum bill has garnered bipartisan, majority support with 61 co-sponsors, including 23 Democrats, more than enough to override a filibuster. The co-sponsors include potential presidential contenders — Sens. George Allen (R-Va.), John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) — as well as Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.).

The Ros-Lehtinen legislation passed 397-21, with members of the Republican and Democratic leadership backing it.

The legislation has also been hailed by pro-Jewish political groups as necessary to address the Iranian nuclear threat. Josh Block, spokesman for the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), said a nuclear Iran “has been a primary fear of AIPAC.” He also hailed the House for passing the Ros-Lehtinen bill and expects the Senate to do the same.

Santorum, facing a difficult reelection race, has received $55,000 in campaign contributions this cycle from 12 different Jewish-based PACs, according to PoliticalMoneyLine.

He also recently introduced a bill that would enact a five-year extension on the same ILSA statute that his earlier sanctions bill would ultimately reform. Unlike the previous sanctions legislation, the Iran Sanctions Extension Act of 2006, was referred to the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, chaired by Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.).

Santorum’s reauthorization bill could provide a vehicle for either the Senate or House sanctions bills to reach a conference committee or allow for Santorum’s bill to receive a vote on the Senate floor while avoiding the Foreign Relations Committee and Lugar specifically.

Both Santorum and Ros-Lehtinen have expressed a willingness to use ILSA reauthorization legislation as a vehicle to move their sanctions bills.

Robert Traynham, communications director for Santorum, said in March that the senator was “open to looking for available legislative vehicles” to move his bill in the Senate. He added that “the primary vehicle” being discussed was an ILSA reauthorization bill introduced by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).

Yleem Poblete, legislative director for Ros-Lehtinen, said that if “the only thing the Senate can muster doing is a separate bill that only reauthorizes the original ILSA, we can still use that as a vehicle to go to conference and have H.R. 282 be what reaches the president’s desk.”

Neither office responded to recent questions regarding the bills. Alex Cruz, a spokesman for Ros-Lehtinen, said that the Senate is better suited to respond, adding, “We did our part; now the Senate must do theirs.” 

Lugar is relying on the support of the White House to prevent the sanctions bills from becoming law. The Bush administration has consistently opposed sanctions legislation, specifically the Ros-Lehtinen bill. According to a House International Relations Committee staffer, the White House has attempted to slow down the bill in the House and may look to do the same in the Senate.

R. Nicholas Burns, undersecretary of state for political affairs, testified to the House International Relations Committee in March that the Ros-Lehtinen bill “could constrain the administration’s flexibility just when we need to be able to maintain all of our policy options” and that the administration would “support a reauthorization of ILSA for Iran … for a further five-year term.”

Multiple Senate sources, including Republican and Democratic staffers in the Foreign Relations Committee, have said that the more likely outcome is a reauthorization of the existing statute, as opposed to either the Santorum or the Ros-Lehtinen bill’s being signed into law.

The call for harsher sanctions against energy companies could run against the incentive package recently offered to Iran by the United States and other nations. The European delegation called for protection of European companies from U.S. sanctions if they engage in business with Iran.  

Lawmakers have criticized the ILSA statute for being ineffective in curtailing Iranian investment. A Congressional Research Service report noted that there has not been an ILSA sanctions determination since 1997, despite multiple incidences of energy investment in Iran.

Iran has consistently asserted its legal right to a civilian nuclear energy program under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which the nation ratified in 1970. The United States and other members of the international community have contended that Iran may be looking to create nuclear military capability under the guise of a civilian energy program.